From education to employment

Vocational exams cancelled in February and March – Government must stop treating BTEC and vocational students as an afterthought

Gavin Williamson

The Secretary of State for Education @GavinWilliamson writes to @Ofqual’s Chief Regulator outlining the process to agree alternative arrangements for exams in 2021 

Following the Prime Minister’s announcement of new national restrictions, the government announced exams this year would not go ahead as planned.

Today (13 Jan), Rt Hon Gavin Williamson CBE MP, Secretary of State for Education sent a letter to Simon Lebus, Ofqual’s Chief Regulator.

This letter outlines the process to agree alternative arrangements for exams in 2021.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“I know how hard students have been working to prepare for exams.

“The steps we’ve taken have been a last resort, but the path of the virus means we need to do everything possible to reduce transmission and that means sitting exams would no longer have been fair for all students.

“I want to reassure students that we have learnt lessons from last year, and will be putting our trust in teachers to provide the grades that will let young people progress to their next stage.

“I know that those working in education, parents and in particular young people feel strongly about these issues, which is why we, with Ofqual, will launch a consultation this week to provide the opportunity to shape the approach to alternative arrangements.”

Government must stop treating BTEC and vocational students as an afterthought 

Toby Perkins 100x100Toby Perkins MP, Labour’s Shadow Apprenticeships and Lifelong Learning Minister, commenting on the Government’s decision to cancel BTEC and vocational exams in February and March, said:

“Labour has called for BTEC and other vocational exams to be cancelled, so it’s welcome that the government finally has bowed to the inevitable and cancelled February and March assessments.

 “Sadly, Gavin Williamson’s U-turn has come too late for thousands of worried learners, alongside school and college staff who were placed in an incredibly difficult situation over whether to go ahead with January exams.

“The government’s indecision has now created a divide between those students who did January exams and others, creating further confusion for students and colleges. Gavin Williamson must urgently set out how these qualifications will be awarded and stop treating BTEC and vocational students as an afterthought.”

Responding to the letter exchange between Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson and Ofqual’s Chief Regulator, Simon Lebus setting out arrangements for exams in 2021 

david hughes 100 x100Association of Colleges Chief Executive, David Hughes said:

“This exchange of letters is a positive step forward in reaching considered decisions quickly so that students and colleges are clear about education, training and assessment over the next 6 months. It is good to see plans for vocational and technical qualifications alongside those for A Levels and GCSEs within an overall approach which values all students equally.

“The decision to cancel written exams in February and March is a good one, but so is the priority given to ensuring that assessments can go ahead when safe for students taking competency-based assessment including apprenticeships.

“The letters helpfully highlight the challenge of completing college-based programmes in areas key to economic recovery such as construction and where students need to to practise their skills before taking assessment. Those students will need to return to college at the earliest opportunity, once it is safe to do so, to complete their training and be ready for the assessment which unlocks job opportunities.

“The biggest challenge the education system faces in all of this is how to take into account the differential lost learning that students have suffered. There are no simple solutions, but we must continue to focus on that as government progresses with these plans for assessment. Many students will need catch up provision and support, colleges and universities will need to flexibly take lost learning into account in their entry decisions and extra resources will be needed for those who have missed too much hands-on training to be competent in their chosen profession. We look forward to working with DfE and Ofqual following the publication of the consultation later this week.”

Simon Lebus 100x100Responding to this letter to confirm Ofqual’s agreement to work with the Department for Education and others across the sector to put in place the fairest possible alternative arrangements, Simon Lebus, said:

“Putting in place these new arrangements will be a significant challenge for the organisations we regulate, but most of all to all who work in schools and colleges, and students. “We recognise that, for many qualifications, we are asking teachers to take on an unexpected and important task in assessing their students’ performance to determine their qualification grade, on top of the considerable pressures they have been under throughout the year.

“We must make sure that this task is as manageable as possible, and that we draw on resources and expertise within the system as a whole to achieve that.”

dr Mary Bousted 100x100 edited 1Commenting on the Education Secretary’s letter to Ofqual, setting out further detail on the arrangements for replacing exams in 2021, Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: 

“The principle of trusting teachers rather than algorithms is absolutely the right one to take. The fact that the government originally did not do so last summer was what caused upset and chaos for students. However, there is little detail as of yet as to how this trust will actually manifest itself – and actions speak louder than words.

“Had the government listened to the NEU and put in place a contingency plan sooner we would be in a better position now to make sure grades could be awarded reliably and without creating severe workload issues for education staff and students. We will continue to talk with Ofqual, DfE and awarding bodies to make sure education staff’s voices are heard but we need to see the full details of the process as soon as possible in order to be assured that grades will be fair for all and that it will be manageable for school and college staff, and students.”

Letter from Gavin Williamson to Ofqual’s Simon Lebus

Outlining the process to agree alternative arrangements for exams in 2021: 

Dear Simon,

I want to thank Ofqual for the collaborative work over recent months to prepare for all potential scenarios in relation to exams in 2021. This work puts us in a good position to deal with the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in as a result of the pandemic.

As has become clear, the pandemic requires government to take additional measures to control the spread of the virus. The rapid rise in Covid-19 meant the country had to move into a new phase of national restrictions, and our plans have sadly had to be reviewed as schools and colleges need to play their part in the fight against this terrible disease.

As the Prime Minister said on 4 January, new national restrictions in England are essential, and all primary schools, secondary schools and colleges have moved to remote education, except for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers, until at least February half-term. Education is a national priority, but the progress of the virus means we are now at the point where everything possible has to be done to reduce transmission.

Given the further disruption, we cannot guarantee that all students will be in a position to sit their exams fairly this summer and it is my firm policy position that alternative arrangements are needed to award qualifications. My department and Ofqual had already worked up a range of contingency options. Having considered those options, I am asking Ofqual to consult on alternative arrangements for GCSE, AS and A levels which should involve the awarding of grades based on teacher assessment. We recognise students taking vocational, technical and other general qualifications used for progression will have suffered similar levels of disruption, and we want to ensure that students taking these qualifications are not disadvantaged in comparison to their peers taking GCSEs, AS and A levels. Our propositions for these vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) are outlined in this letter and I am asking Ofqual to consult on those matters as well.

I am writing, therefore, to ask that you continue to work jointly with my department on alternative arrangements based on teachers’ assessment and prepare to launch a consultation, so that we can give students, parents and teachers certainty, quickly. Given that there remain decisions for me to take on matters of government policy, and for you on changes to the regulatory framework, I suggest that it will make sense for us to conduct a joint consultation. Following the consultation, I will issue a direction to you, having considered the responses, to set out my expectations for the way in which qualifications should be delivered this year.

We have agreed that we will issue the consultation document later this week, and that, recognising the need both to engage widely, and to reach conclusions quickly, it will run for a fortnight. We will make every effort during that time to hear as many people’s views and suggestions as possible.

The remainder of this letter sets out my views on the policy that should underpin the consultation document, and which I know you will have regard to in a way that is consistent with my role in setting policy direction, and yours as the statutory regulator.

The consultation

GCSEs, AS and A levels

Given the disruption children and young people have faced, it is vital we maximise the remaining opportunity for them to be taught for as long as possible, so they have every opportunity to catch up. This will enable them to successfully progress, be that onto further or higher education or employment. It is my view that a teacher’s final judgement on a student’s grade ought to be as late as possible in the academic year to maximise remaining teaching time and ensure students are motivated to remain engaged in education. 

This year we are asking teachers to assess their students, and it is my view that we should seek ways to support them to do so in a fair and consistent fashion. A breadth of evidence should inform teachers’ judgements, and the provision training and guidance will support teachers to reach their assessment of a student’s deserved grade. This should be drawn out in the consultation. In addition, I would like to explore the possibility of providing externally set tasks or papers, in order that teachers can draw on this resource to support their assessments of students. We should seek views in the consultation on what broader evidence should determine a teacher’s assessment of a student’s
grade and whether we should require or recommend the use of the externally set tasks or papers. We should also seek to minimise the additional burdens for teachers and schools created by this need for evidence. 

It is my view that the consultation should set out proposals which allow students to be assessed based on what they have learnt, rather than against content they have not had a chance to study. This will need to be balanced against the need to ensure good enough coverage of the curriculum for all students to support successful progress. We have agreed that we will not use an algorithm to set or automatically standardise anyone’s grade.

Schools and colleges should undertake quality assurance of their teachers’ assessments and provide reassurance to the exam boards. We should provide training and guidance to support that, and there should also be external checks in place to support fairness and consistency between different institutions and to avoid schools and colleges proposing anomalous grades. However, my view is that any changes to grades as a result of the external quality assurance process should be the exception: the process will not involve second-guessing the judgement of teachers but confirming that the process and evidence used to award a grade is reasonable. Changes should only be made if those grades cannot be justified, rather than as a result of marginal differences of opinion. Any changes should be based on human decisions, not by an automatic process or algorithm.

It is important that there is a clear and accessible route for private candidates to be assessed and receive a grade, and so the consultation should seek views on their options to do so. There should also be a route for any student who does not believe their grade reflects the standard of their work to request a review and appeal their grade, the details of which we should explore fully in the consultation.

Other general qualifications

There are some other general qualifications, such as Core Maths and the International Baccalaureate, whose structure and assessment methods mean they are more similar to GCSEs and A levels than to VTQs. It is my view that the approach taken to awarding these qualifications should be similar to that taken to GCSEs and A levels, and I would like the consultation to consider that approach.

Vocational and Technical qualifications (VTQs)

I announced on 5 January that the January external examinations of VTQs can continue where schools, colleges and other FE providers judge it is right to do so. This reflected the fact that students and staff have worked hard to prepare for the January exams and students were ready to take them, and that these exams could proceed safely in January as providers had been implementing protective measures to ensure they could be conducted in line with PHE measures. I have been clear that all students will be able to progress fairly,
irrespective of whether they sat an exam in January.

For many VTQs, internal and external assessment occurs throughout the year. Awarding organisations have been working to adapt their assessments to mitigate the impacts of disruption on teaching, learning and assessment, as well as responding to public health measures such as social distancing. The government expects that where assessment has already been completed, this will be taken into account when awarding a result. As with the approach for students taking GCSEs and A levels, I am keen to maximise the opportunities for students to continue to develop their knowledge and skills and catch up on any lost learning for the remainder of this academic year. I would expect internal assessment to continue, and to take place remotely, for these qualifications wherever possible, whilst recognising that the level of disruption suffered might mean that not all internal assessment can be completed by all students.

Assessments in February and March

Further external examinations are currently scheduled to take place in February and March for some VTQ students. Where these assessments enable a student to demonstrate the proficiency required to enter directly into employment, are needed to complete an apprenticeship, or assessments are available ‘ondemand’ such as Functional Skills or English as a Second Language (ESOL), as agreed with you, they should continue to proceed with protective measures put in place to ensure they are conducted in line with PHE measures. This is to ensure these students can continue to progress fairly with their studies or into employment and employers are assured that students have reached the necessary level of occupational skill.

However, given the further disruption, for all other VTQs with written exams scheduled in February and March (including BTECs and other qualifications included in performance tables) it is no longer viable for these exams to go ahead. Views on alternative arrangements for these qualifications should be sought in the consultation.

Where assessment for Functional Skills qualifications can take place online and where students are ready to take them in the coming weeks, my view is that assessment should continue as planned. For students who are unable to access assessment in this way, my view is that there should be alternative assessment arrangements put in place following the outcomes of the consultation.

Assessments from April – August 2021

Qualifications used to support progression instead of, or alongside, GCSE and A levels Many VTQs are used for progression to further study instead of, or alongside, GCSEs and A levels, and it is critical that these students are awarded a qualification and can access the same progression opportunities. Last year, these qualifications, such as BTECs and Cambridge Nationals and Technicals, received calculated results. It is my expectation that a similar group of qualifications will again, this year, need to have alternative arrangements to examined assessments and that we should use this consultation to seek views on the detail of these arrangements and the qualifications in scope of this approach. These arrangements may need to be different in some cases to those put in place last year to take account of the different circumstances.

Qualifications demonstrating occupational competency There are a number of qualifications where a practical demonstration of
occupational skills is needed to award the qualification. These may be standalone qualifications, part of an apprenticeship, or provide entry into a particular profession. Whilst I recognise that these students will also have faced disruption to their education, it is not possible to award qualifications that require students to demonstrate occupational proficiency on the basis of teacher judgement alone, because often there are health and safety or regulatory elements where assessment is critical. Awarding organisations have already adapted their qualifications to account for disruption and public health guidance. In line with the decision on February and March assessments, I
expect that these proficiency-based assessments should continue wherever possible, subject to public health guidance, so that students are able to progress to the next stage of their lives. However, where students would prefer to or need to defer their assessment, my view is that they should be able to do so.

Further and higher education (FE and HE)

It is important we give FE and HE providers the earliest possible indication of the process and timescale for how grades will be awarded and their overall implications, so they can plan and pitch their remaining offers appropriately. For HE specifically, the UCAS deadline for most courses has been pushed back to the end of January, giving us a window to set out our plans before the majority of offers are made. The Minister for Universities is working closely with the sector to ensure we avoid the scenario of over-subscription which we saw in the summer of 2020, and to protect the interests of disadvantaged students.

We must ensure the consultation reaches a wide audience and so it should specifically seek the views of teachers, school and college leaders, students and their parents. Our officials will be jointly hosting a series of meetings with representatives of the sector including teacher unions, exam boards, school and college leaders and the FE and HE sectors.

I look forward to continuing to work together on this most important of matters.

I am copying this to the Chair of Ofqual, Ian Bauckham, the Chair of the Education Select Committee, and my counterparts in the Devolved

Rt Hon Gavin Williamson CBE MP, Secretary of State for Education


Letter from Gavin Williamson to Simon Lebus

PDF, 111KB, 5 pages

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